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Ahead of National Fast Food Strike, Alt-Labor Is Under Threat

There is a schism that could not only undermine the movement but also exposes many of the inherent problems in this new kind of organizing.
May 11, 2014, 4:35pm
Photo by Annette Bernhardt

This week, fast food workers will be once again taking to the streets across the country for yet another national day of action to demand a $15 minimum wage and general workers rights in the industry.

The May 15 strike across 150 cities is part of a broader campaign of labor activists organizing the service sector outside the model of traditional unionism — a movement sometimes called “alt-labor.”

Other forms of alt-labor have organizing workers who are either legally not allowed to join unions or have been traditionally excluded from the movement, such as domestic workers, who have organized to pass more laws to protect what has largely been an unregulated workforce.


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But within alt-labor is a schism that could not only undermine the movement but also exposes many of the inherent problems in this new kind of organizing.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York

The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York was founded after the 9/11 attacks by the surviving members of the Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center, as a way for workers to address workers rights but job losses in the hospitality industry at the time. The group grew to have a three-pronged approach: addressing working place organizing, working with cooperative employers to train and advance workers’ careers and to advocate for progressive employment laws.

The group grew in fame and some of its members even opened a collectively-run restaurant in lower Manhattan. The group has also lead high-profile campaigns regarding issues like wage theft claims against chef Mario Batali and Capital Grille.

There is now a national organization, ROC-United, that operates local groups other cities, but ROC-NY maintains its own revenue bases of member-dues and funds from philanthropies. It is a separate non-profit organization. But the national organization is looking to change all of that, and New York activists aren’t happy.

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Internal documents and interviews from insiders suggest that strife has been in the making for a while. Former staffer Yvonne Yen Liu said in an email obtained by VICE News that the national office has been “trying to annihilate and subsume the NY office,” and that there has been “trouble internally in ROC for some time.” She added, “Staff have tried to push against the centralization. A staff organizer was fired, as a result.”

In fact, Liu and other staffers had signed onto a draft of a letter to ROC-United leadership in September 2013 raising concerns about retaliation and transparency in the national organization’s “restructuring and unification.”

In addition, an email circulated among ROC-United staff first obtained by journalist Arun Gupta says specifically that the organization was going through a “unification process,” in part because it wanted to centralize the logistical operations of the different locals, but also “because we have come under attack by the [National Restaurant Association] and its front group ROC Exposed, we need to operate and speak publicly with one voice, rather than as many smaller organizations trying to withstand the attacks of such a powerful lobby.”

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) is a foodservice trade association that supports nearly 500,000 restaurant businesses, according to the organization's website. ROC Exposed, a nonprofit coalition comprised of restaurants and consumers "dedicated to educating the public about ROC's real agenda" — accuse ROC of really being a "labor union front group disguised as a restaurant industry employment center and watchdog."


The ROC-United email and a press statement claim the takeover of the New York City chapter is complete: “While some of the staff of the NY affiliate decided not to join ROC-United, as of this week the majority of its staff, members, and employer partners have joined ROC-United.”

But ROC-NY counters this claim saying only three junior members of its 11-member staff have moved to ROC-United, and that it received a merger agreement from the national organization that would have forced it to violate state law, although ROC-United denies this.

Rahul Saksena, ROC-NY’s policy director said “ROC-United's leadership is spreading lies that we merged with them. They are actually telling people that we no longer exist as an independent organization, and that's simply not true.” And Kevin Park, a ROC-NY member said “ROC-United's actions are troubling and only serve to hurt workers. Bullying tactics and threats have no place in our movement. I will always stand with ROC-NY, and I call on others to do the same.”

But ROC-United officials said the terms of the merger agreement did not violate New York State law.

"We do want to stress that ROC is growing and becoming more successful in its efforts to change the restaurant industry and build power and voice for restaurant workers and like-minded employers and consumers. We are thus beginning to counterbalance the undue political influence of the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) which spends millions lobbying against the interests of workers, women, and consumers," said Maria Myotte, ROC-United's national communications coordinator in an email to VICE News.


ROC-NY Versus ROC-United

What is motivating all this drama? Part of it, ROC-NY activists say, has to do with the national organization’s leader, Saru Jayaraman, whose recent book about alternative food-sector worker organizing and appearances on panels and television shows have raised her profile. It’s easy to understand her appeal.

With a labor movement led mostly by aging white men, the young and charismatic South Asian woman is a refreshing addition for a movement that is in desperate need of positive change. A co-founder of ROC-NY, the Yale Law School graduate rose to be the director of the national organization, which was meant to be smaller coordinating office for a network of largely independent local organizations.

But starting about a year ago, insiders say, Jayaraman didn’t want to lose control. Instead of converting the national organization into a confederation of locals, she raised philanthropic funds to hire a larger staff that dictates policies and procedures to the locals with the exception of ROC-NY, which operates independently. A further difference between the flagship New York chapter and the national organization is that the former has a governing board elected by its worker members, while the national board members serve by appointment.

ROC-NY staffers acknowledge that the ROC organization (both on the national and local levels) has been under attack from the National Restaurant Association (NRA), however, they say, that its accusations of Jayaraman’s megalomania are largely true.


ROC Exposed, for example, mocks her book as a work of self-obsession rather than a chronicle of a social movement and says her staff works mostly to promote her own personal brand.

The fear New York organizers have is that she wants to take ROC-NY’s membership and assets to grow a national organization that is focused on policy and advocacy rather than worker organizing in order to give her a platform. Critics share this concern; veteran labor journalist Steve Early in a review of her book for Counterpunch said her “organizational self-centeredness and limited reform agenda are major shortcomings of her otherwise smartly packaged volume.”

Through a ROC-United spokesperson, Jayaraman declined VICE News' request for comment citing "agreements made to not speak to press about this internal process as we move forward."

And for many of those resisting the takeover, the only real winner in this hostility will be the employers the group originally vowed to fight against.

In the draft letter by ROC reform activists like Liu, it says, “ROC is led by a charismatic leader, while bringing many positive contributions to the organization, wields undue influence on the internal workings and outward face of the organization. The leader is the gatekeeper for foundation and union funding, and has also hired most executive-level staff. With power concentrated in one person, ROC risks replicating mistakes that prior movements, such as the civil rights, New Left, and labor movement fell prey to. The risks of concentrating power in one person in an ostensibly grassroots organization are well known, by us and by our adversaries. Our corporate opponents are looking for any opportunity possible to undermine ROC’s legitimacy.”

Photo via Flickr